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Beirut, a city where everyone gets by, revisits sectarian violence

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Tony Nohra, a shopkeeper in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut, received a shipment of yogurt on Friday, in the wake of sectarian clashes that left seven people dead in the city, and talk about the number of Shia Muslim friends he had.

But when asked how the violence started, he broke down. “You have to ask the guys over there,” he said, angrily pointing to the nearby Shiite neighborhood.

Hearing the comment, the Shiite man delivering the yogurt intervened.

“No, no,” he insisted. “It started from here.”

Most of the time, the inhabitants of Beirut, a disjointed Mediterranean city whose approximately 2.5 million inhabitants represent a formidable ethnic and religious diversity, get by and get along well. They do business, socialize and even marry outside of their religious groups.

Various denominations of Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze, Armenians, Syrian and Palestinian refugees and other groups come together, often sharing employers, neighborhoods and apartment buildings.

But Thursday’s clashes, the worst sectarian violence in the Lebanese capital in years, revealed tensions hidden beneath the surface in a city haunted by 15 years of civil war.

Apartment buildings still bear the scars of shootings during the Civil War, in which sectarian militias of Muslims, Christians and others fought until 1990. And although it has long since been erased , almost everyone knows the path of the “green line” that separated them. the city between the Christian East and the Muslim West during hostilities.

It was near that invisible border that fighting erupted Thursday, when snipers in tall buildings fired at Shiites passing through the neighborhood as they were on their way to a demonstration. Authorities arrested 19 people on Saturday for their involvement in the clashes, the national news agency reported, without providing further details on the suspects.

The violence unfolded against a backdrop of devastating political and economic crises that left many residents feeling that there was little state left to protect them, a situation that only worsened. feelings of loyalty and dependence on their sects.

Since the fall of 2019, the currency has collapsed, siphoning off the value of people’s wages and savings and causing prices to skyrocket. Amid perpetual feuds, the political elite failed to slow the descent.

And a massive explosion in the Port of Beirut last year killed more than 215 people, damaged large swathes of the city, and left many Beirutis thinking their government’s history of mismanagement and corruption was damaging them. life threatening.

It was the aftermath of the explosion – namely the efforts of politicians and other officials to shirk responsibility – that led to Thursday’s events.

Two Shiite political parties – Hezbollah, a militant group that the United States considers a terrorist organization, and the Amal Movement – led a protest calling for the dismissal of the judge investigating the blast.

On the way to the demonstration, many participants took a commercial boulevard that separates two very different neighborhoods.

On one side is Mr. Nohra’s predominantly Christian neighborhood, Ein al-Remaneh, where many locals wear crosses, dot their Arabic with French, and name their children after Catholic saints.

On the other, the predominantly Shiite Chiyah, where flags bearing the names of Shia Muslim martyrs hang from lampposts, women wear headscarves, and locals consider Iran more likely to help Lebanon solve its many problems than the United States.

Residents of the two neighborhoods make frequent trips back and forth. Christians do business in the Shiite area, where traders have a knack for avoiding paying tariffs. And less devout Shiites buy beer from Christians, sometimes drinking it on the spot if they can’t take it home.

Like many in Beirut, locals often view local conflicts as skirmishes in sweeping geopolitical battles involving the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. They came up with radically different explanations for what triggered the violence.

In Ein al-Remaneh, Christians accused the demonstrators of entering their neighborhood with weapons, a provocation.

“Who comes to a peaceful demonstration with weapons?” ”Asked Fadi Qarout, 57, a Christian trader who has lived in the area since before the civil war.

He admitted that snipers from a Christian militia could have been deployed before the demonstration, but accused the Shiites of using force in a community that was not their own.

“They entered the area to cause problems here,” he said.

Mr. Nohra agreed.

“Who was hurt the most? He said, mentioning the nearby chandelier store and car dealership that had been damaged in the shooting.

When reminded that the seven people who were killed were Shiites, including a woman doing laundry on his balcony, he resorted to an all-too-common Lebanese explanation for facts that did not fit. with the favorite story: the conspiracy theory.

The Shiites, he said, shot at each other “to make the situation worse”.

Hezbollah and its allies accused snipers from the Lebanese Forces, a Saudi Arabian-backed Christian political party, of shooting at their members, forcing them to retaliate. The Lebanese Forces denied any involvement in the attack, and their leader, Samir Geagea, blamed Hezbollah.

A short distance from Mr. Nohra’s shop, across the boulevard in Chiyah, a group of Shia men, dressed in black to mourn those killed, came up with their own conspiracy theories, claiming the shooters ambushes were part of a plot involving the United States and its allies to weaken Hezbollah and its allies.

None of the men agreed to give his name.

“Yes, there was an ambush and the embassies and intelligence agencies planned it,” said a man known as Abu Ali, who locals described as being in charge of the area and who refused to give his real name.

He wore a military-style shirt, carried a pistol in his belt, and ran a cafe called Al Sultan which was covered in pictures of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”.

The snipers, he was sure, had been trained by the United States, he said.

Hezbollah would seek revenge when it chooses, he said, adding: “When there is silence, it is because we are planning our response.

As he spoke, men in black shirts left the cafe, grabbed automatic rifles and rushed on scooters to the funerals of their comrades killed the day before.

Near the cemetery, thousands of Hezbollah operatives and supporters filled the streets, detonating their Kalashnikovs in the sky, covering the asphalt with bullet casings and filling the air with smoke.

It was a larger armed rally than any other group in Lebanon can assemble, reflecting the strength that exempts Hezbollah from any control of the Lebanese state.

“The Shiites in Lebanon are weak without Hezbollah, but Hezbollah has no choice but to be strong because they are surrounded by enemies,” said Abbas al-Moualem, a medic who attended the funeral.

Iman Fadlallah, 45, who mourned a relative who had been killed the day before, admitted that the collapse of Lebanon had injured his family. They lacked electricity, and prices had risen so quickly that they could rarely afford meat.

But she remained religiously and politically committed to Hezbollah.

“Our commitment to the party is greater,” she said. “If I don’t eat meat, I’m fine. “

Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting.

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